In our role as strategic advisors on spatial planning and infrastructure investment to local and central government, we are frequently asked “how do we speed up the delivery of the transformational projects we need to achieve our vision?”
The answer may vary by context, but a crucial aspect often overlooked is the need to improve our delivery models and relinquish some of our individual agency autonomy.
The reality is that almost every region in New Zealand already has strategies that list actions required to:
- drive economic productivity
- reduce congestion
- adapt to climate change
- reduce our transport emissions
- improve our water or air quality
- provide housing choice and enhance housing affordability… and a host of other outcomes.
These strategies will have been endorsed or supported by multiple Councils, iwi partners and even government agencies.
However, delivery of these strategies is another thing altogether.
In New Zealand we rely on collaborative planning processes to develop strategies but then individual action to implement them. Individual agency autonomy (be it local authority or central government) is seen as an absolute, and delegations or shared accountability are rarely considered.
Where we have managed to create collaborative multi-agency planning structures, such as our Urban Growth Partnerships or some of our joint transport planning initiatives, we often do not ask these structures to decide anything. At best, they usually make recommendations to the individual partners who decide whether to support the strategy. From a planning perspective, that seems logical. However, when it comes to the delivery stage – where parties are united and genuine transformation begins to take place – it may not be as effective.
A hypothetical example
Region X prepares a strategy that will integrate land use planning, transport, and water investments in a way that improves housing affordability, drives economic growth, reduces emissions, reduces congestion, and improves resilience to climate change. That strategy is recommended to each of the regional partners (five to seven local and iwi authorities plus multiple government agencies) for adoption. In most regions this means 10-15 distinct groups of decision makers are involved.
These decision makers go through their own approval processes and with luck agree to fund implementation through their individual long-term planning and budgeting processes. A governance group is formed to oversee implementation of the strategy and is given an annual budget to co-ordinate the work programme. Sometimes an independent Programme Manager Office is appointed to oversee and co-ordinate implementation. The governance group is only given advisory functions rather than decision making responsibilities.
During implementation, various partner agencies prepare detailed business cases for the partnership, investing significant amounts of money and staff time to confirm a precise list of programmes and projects to execute the strategy efficiently and effectively. Leveraging independent experts across a range of different disciplines, these cases undergo extensive community and stakeholder engagement, are costed at a high-level and tested using standard economic evaluation methods.
The governance group presents a list of endorsed projects to partner agencies. Each agency then reviews the list and decides whether to provide funding. Since these projects are interconnected, the programme’s success may hinge on every agency’s acceptance and financial contribution.
With a mix of the stars aligning and sheer hard work, all partners agree to the project list. Upwards of 20-30 major infrastructure and planning projects are lined up for delivery, boasting a potential multi-billion-dollar value over 30 years. With both political and technical endorsement, we are ready to make a difference in our communities.
But are we really?
At this stage, experience suggests that commitment begins to wane. Projects get entangled in internal review committees and reprioritisation exercises. Funding and electoral cycles fall out of rhythm with each other, decisions are made without relevant partners in the room and delivery slows or even stops.
Often the strategy gets discarded or forgotten, and we return to square one and prepare a new plan and an often-similar project list. Little to no progress is made towards our shared vision and goals.
Even if the agencies remain on track, we are relying on 10-15 agencies to deliver these projects in a unified manner, each using their own distinctive project management and procurement methods, led by their own internal governance with the power to stop a project in its tracks. As you can imagine, this might not work! Traditional governance models, geared towards individual rather than collective priorities, do not suit efficient delivery of integrated programmes with joint objectives.
When present, our regional collaborative governance groups can only advise and observe, often in frustration due to their limited role in implementing recommendations.
So, what now?
Conversations on city deals, place-based agreements, or collaborative investment partnerships should be welcomed, as these could shift the focus from extensive planning to delivering results.
These ideas offer a new model where decision-makers recognise that grand aspirations demand bold actions and inevitable trade-offs.
In a “deal” model, the partners confirm the strategy, outcomes, and prioritised programmes and projects, then allocate funds to a single delivery entity. This entity would be authorised to deliver the programme and projects, following a detailed statement of intent focused on value for money, community engagement, and broader outcomes. The partners would come together as a “Board” to hold the delivery entity to account.
This kind of model has the potential to significantly reduce the decision-making churn and make things happen. What holds us back?